Now we walk alone: On saying goodbye to Europe


I woke up this morning outside of Europe. This was strange, because I went to bed in Europe and so in the night, the borders of the continent withdrew from my bed and my country leaving with nothing but my Britishness to console me in the morning.

It has been a long and bumpy ride this Brexit business. I know it is not over, but today at least marks the beginning of a new phase of indecision and brinkmanship. I’ve been writing about Brexit since June 2016 (three and a half years!). For what its worth my first post on the subject was probably even more despondent than this one is going to be.

Brexit has offered us a strange mix of contradictions. It has been a revolt against the status quo that has delivered the country into the hands of a Conservative government led by an Eton/Oxford educated career politician. It has been a fight for British jobs that has resulted in the British economy sluggish in the face of indecision. It has brought sovereignty back to Britain only to see Parliament collapse  under the weight of an ill thought out plebiscite. Things have not been going well.

And while all of this has been unfolding Britain has allowed itself to be divided into two camps; leave and remain. Both have sought to outdo the other in vitriol and smear. I’m skeptical of calls for ‘civility’ in politics as they are so frequently weaponised against anyone who challenges the orthodoxy, but the leave/remain division has allowed people to become divided over an issue that has only served to obscure the real dividing lines in British society. Leavers have become convinced that their disenfranchisement is the fault of the European Union, while Remainers have basked in the glow of self-satisfaction and sprayed accusations of racism around.

But, all of this sound and fury has signified nothing. Last night the country did what it resolved to do back in June 2016 and left the European Union.

So, what now…

Well, nobody really knows. Leavers presumably anticipate the unfolding of a Utopian golden age where Britain once again rules the waves, where freedom from European regulation and bureaucracy foster an economic boom and our democracy becomes more responsive. On the other hand Remainers are lining up for tattoos reading ‘I told you, I bloody told you!’ and anticipating the rapid unfolding of the apocalypse.

In truth, no one really knows and no one will ever really know. A recent issue of More of Less discussed how we can construct a meaningful counter-factual based on the performance of other countries that used to have similar economies to Britain in the pre-Brexit era. They concluded that Britain’s economy would have performed better if we hadn’t voted to leave, but also noted that building this kind of counter-factual gets increasingly difficult the further we get away from Brexit.

So, what are my predictions? Obviously I have no greater insights than anyone else, but for what it is worth, here goes:

  1. Britain will not sink into the sea. Whether we are inside or outside of the European Union we remain a major economy capable of weathering a range of challenges and problems. We will continue to have some power and pull in the global economy and that will mean whatever happens, no one else will want to exclude us from the global economy altogether.
  2. Britain will have to renegotiate its place in the world, and will not be able to do this entirely on its own terms. There are numerous diplomatic, trade, security, issues of the movement of people and goods and regulatory arrangements that will need to be established now we are outside of the European Union. This will take time and will not result in Britain getting its own way all the time. We have put ourselves in a weak position and others will use our vulnerability to extract better terms.
  3. Some companies and some jobs will leave Britain.  There have already been a handful of high profile relocations, there will be more. Probably more significantly some firms will notch down recruitment in the UK and notch it up in other countries (notably Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic states).
  4. There will have to be a lot of public investment to develop the bureaucracy and infrastructure that Britain needs. This may result in some new jobs and areas of expertise returning to Britain and probably in an increase in the proportion of the population employed in the public sector. This will be heightened by the promises that the government has made to get the population on board (new hospitals, more nurses, more police etc.).
  5. There is likely to be continued economic sluggishness and may be a recession. Commentators have been predicting a global economic slowdown for a number of years and Brexit is not likely to help with this. The other issues I’ve already raised may mean that it hits in the UK particularly hard.
  6. The big issue for the next few years will be Scottish independence and the break up of the Union.  Particularly if things go badly with the progress of Brexit, people in Scotland are increasingly asking why they are still in this country. How this question will be answered is still unclear, but it will be asked a lot.
  7. Brexit will become the new political reality.  Despite all the Remainer tears, Brexit looks like a settled question. Political parties that promise rejoining the European Union will get nowhere on this basis. Eventually people will cease to replay the referendum and accept that Britain has a new reality.
  8. People will go about their lives and there will never be a reckoning on Brexit. No one will ultimately be proved right or wrong. Time will pass and lives will be lived.
  9. Politics will change, but it will also stay the same. All the factors above will influence the future of politics and the economy. This may lead to a configuration of political identity and affiliation, it may also lead to a reconfiguration of the parties themselves, but ultimately the same decisions between left and right, individualistic and collective, authoritarian and permissive and decentralised and centralised approaches to the world will remain. Conservativism, liberalism and socialism will endure, albeit always changing, and we will continue to choose between them.
  10. The environment will gradually emerge as a political issue that cuts across nationalisms. Brexit is part of a series of trends that seek to dismantle elements of neoliberal globalisation and to mutate neoliberalism into a new form propped up by ethno-nationalism. The global environmental and climate crises are likely to put pressure on this new political economy and require some more internationalist forms of political organisation.

Warning! My predictions may not come to pass. I have just made them up.

So, what does all of this have to do with careers? Well, if you live in Britain you are living through a major cultural, political and economic transition. You should expect that this will act on the opportunity structures in major ways. The environment in which you pursue your career will be shaped by these changes. It also goes to show how major changes can take place due to politics. Very little is inevitable and the decisions that we take to vote or not vote, to become politically active or choose to watch Netflix all make a difference to the government, to society, the economy and ultimately to our careers.

So, the first phase of Brexit is over. But the future is only just beginning…

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